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Month: May 2021

Take your inspirations where you find them

Posted in Language

I'm reading a new-to-me famous Japanese work by Toson Shimazaki entitled Before the Dawn. It tells (at great length) the story of the experience along one of the famous mountain pass roads that connect the western and eastern parts of Japan and provide access to Kyoto and Edo.

Regarded in Japan (where it first appeared in serial form in the 1930s) as the historical novel of the period it portrays, this monumental work tells the turbulent story of the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, an event precipitated by the arrival of Commodore Perry's Black Ships, and the early years of the Meiji Restoration. The focus is on a mountain village lying across the highway between Tokyo and Kyoto, which was used by the Tokugawa regime as a posting station, and in particular on its headman Hanzo, closely modeled on the author's father, a rural intellectual who suffers the tragic consequences of being a man ahead of his time. Shimazaki shows that the Tokugawa shogunate, for all its repressiveness, had much to commend it; that the restoration, for all its successes, created a great deal of frustration and disillusion; and that, contrary to common belief, Japan's transition from feudalism to the modern age was not a leap but a slow and painful process. The author's supreme achievement is to dramatize wrenching social and political change at the level of individual response. This viable link between event and character, coupled with Toson's limpid, low-key style, is what makes his story so readable despite the massive historical research that infuses it.

–Publishers Weekly

The edition I'm reading, from an unidentified translator, is fascinating, but not just for the story it tells. Instead, it's the insight into the Japanese language and its story-telling traditions that are really interesting.

You see, my edition is a fairly… primitive… translation. There are occasional typos, but that's not what I'm referring to. What I like are the raw renderings of the metaphors common to every language, and the imperfectly mitigated grammatical rules and conventions that are also apparent.

For example, when telling a story, it may begin in the past tense but there is a rapid transition to present tense for the story itself, so that it can be presented as playing out before your eyes. In other cases, there are confusions of gender (male adults who become girls as youths) which I assume reflect something real and conventional in the original language.

As an example of raw (unrendered for translation) metaphors, one lord sends help to a traveler in the form of “two men and two legs”. In context, I would suspect the “two legs” might refer to a palanquin (though wouldn't that need two men and thus four legs?). As another instance, people put their food down on a “ferry” and then eat. In context, the “ferry” is probably a flat platter of some kind.

And sometimes you can't quite tell what to do with a puzzling rendering.

Contrary to the expectations of the people who greeted them, Songun did not look so tired from his journey. He didn't look like a man who had sent six years of his life on a long journey and then went to Kyoto Honzan.

I'm sure that “sent” is a typo for “spent”, but look at what a wonderful phrase results: “a man who had sent six years of his life on a long journey.” Think of those six years sailing off and then returning to him to relate what they had done.

Gave me shivers when I read it, instead of my usual irritation at imperfect translations and copyediting.